Troyes is a renaissance city in the south of Champagne, with streets of multicoloured half-timbered houses from the 1500s.
There may not be a prettier historic centre in all of France, and this is owing to a disaster.
Most of these brightly-painted houses are from right after a fire in 1524 when nearly all the city had to be rebuilt, so there’s a level of harmony that you can’t find anywhere else.
Be awestruck at one of Europe’s finest cathedrals and pass hours milling around old mansions that give you a window on everything about Troyes’ past, from its medieval healthcare to manual trades.
Lets explore the best things to do in Troyes:
1. Troyes Cathedral
Started in the 13th century and completed more than 400 years later, Troyes Cathedral is very harmonious inside and out despite being built in different eras.
The building is entirely gothic, and is treasured as one of the most beautiful churches, not just in France, but all of Europe.
What will strike you is the sense of space in the nave, which is at once powerful and full of grace.
Light pours in through more than 1,500 square metres of stained glass.
Some of these windows are as old as the 1200s.
The essential ones are the three huge roses, measuring ten metres across and with astoundingly intricate traceries designed by the renaissance architect Martin Chambiges.
2. Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière
Hôtel de Mauroy, at 7 Rue de la Trinité, is a joyous renaissance mansion from 1550 and one of Troyes’ loveliest sights.
The Hôtel is a stone, brick and timber building around a courtyard, with a wonderful half-timbered turret.
If the outside is beautiful, the interior is enthralling for its massive cache of antique craftsman’s tools.
In 65 cabinets there are 11,000 objects in all, making this the largest tool museum in the world.
Anyone who values historic trades in leather, wood, metal and stone will be engrossed by these instruments, dating from the 1600s and showing how each craft changed over time.
There are also hand-crafted masterpieces to see: These were created by the Compagnons du Devoir, which is a sort of national guild for craftsmen and women.
3. Église de la Madeleine
Troyes’ oldest church is from the 1100s, though the nave and choir needed rebuilding in the 1500s and 1600s.
If the outside is understated, it’s the opulence of the interior decoration that makes the church crucial if you’re in the city.
The most impressive and historically important element is the choir’s renaissance stone rood screen, which was sculpted between 1508 and 1517. Few of these survive in French churches, because most were removed during the reformation as they separated everyday worshippers from the most sacred part of the church.
The sublime stained glass windows are also from the renaissance, and unlike many are easy to interpret , illustrating well-known Bible scenes like the Garden of Eden and the Passion.
4. Old Troyes
Troyes has a historic centre that will transport you to a different era.
Dawdling from shop to shop is almost an all-day activity, as the medieval quarter is deceptively large.
That’s because there were originally two districts: The Cité is to the west, around the Cathedral and where the nobility and clergy had their residences.
And then on the east side of the Canal du Trévois is the Bourg, for the merchants and hoi polloi.
Throughout, there’s a multitude of Troyan timber-framed houses that evoke the medieval and renaissance period.
At four storeys high, these lovably rickety buildings are topped with triangular gables and all have different shades of daub.
5. Ruelle des Chats
You can’t say you’ve seen Troyes until you’ve walked this medieval alleyway.
Here the overhanging corbelled houses converge in a sort of urban ravine, blocking out all daylight.
The alley is named after the fact that a cat can jump from a building on one side of the street to the other.
It wouldn’t be difficult as the opposing facades actually touch each other at the top.
If you want to know why these houses are so top-heavy, well in medieval French cities tax was calculated according to a building’s footprint, and not additional storeys.
6. Musée d’Art Moderne
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a provincial modern art museum better than this one in the former episcopal palace in Troyes.
You’ll be given a substantial overview of 19th and 20th century art in France, via paintings, sculptures, illustrations and decorative items.
The 19th-century galleries boast works by artists known to all, like Gauguin, Courbet and Degas.
But if the museum has one speciality it would probably be fauvism from the early-20th century, with pieces by the movement’s key figures like Derain, Braque, Dufy and Kees van Dongen all here.
There’s also an entire room for the local artist Maurice Marinot, filled with his exquisite art deco glassware.
7. Musée de Vauluisant
There are actually two attractions in the fabulous renaissance Hôtel de Vauluisant.
You’ll know the building for its twin circular towers, and after seeing the interior you’ll have a bit more perspective about Troyes and the region.
First you have the historical museum, which has curated the marvellous religious paintings, sculpture and stained glass from defunct churches and monasteries around Troyes.
You can get close to the stained glass and will be astounded by the craftsmanship.
There’s also historic furniture and decoration saved from the interiors of wealthy homes that have now been destroyed.
Then you have the Museum of Hosiery: Troyes was the hosiery capital of France from the 1700s up to the 1960s, and there are both primitive wooden looms and sophisticated machines from the industry’s golden age in the 1800s.
Though the current design is from the 1700s, this former hospital has been here since the 1100s.
It now holds classrooms and lecture theatres for the University of Troyes, but there’s a quirky museum to hold your attention inside.
Entered via the quayside is the hospital’s old apothecary and laboratory, which looks much as it did during the reign of Louis XIV. There are three rooms with wooden cabinets stacked to the ceiling with glass bottles, ceramic jars and painted boxes, though you may be disturbed to find out what passed for remedies in those days! There are also artefacts from the medieval hospital, with shrines, instruments and the busts of physicians who worked here.
9. Musée Saint-Loup
Taking its name from the 17th-century abbey that contains it, the Saint-Loup Museum has Troyes’ archaeology, natural history and art up to the modern period.
The archaeology wing is in the beautiful vaulted cellars of the abbey, and has Etruscan, Greek and Egyptian artefacts.
See the 5th-century Treasure of Pouan, discovered in a tomb a short way north of Troyes and composed of jewellery, weapons and intricate ornamental fastenings.
Visit the higher floors for French, Flemish, Dutch and Italian painting up to the 1800s, showcasing 17th-century French luminaries like Charles Le Brun, Philippe de Champaigne and the Troyes-born Pierre Mignard.
10. Basilica of St. Urbain
The 13th-century Pope Urbain IV was born in Troyes and had this church built in 1262 for his patron saint.
It was situated right on the site where his shoemaker father had his cobbler’s workshop.
The choir and transept were built in just two years between 1262 and 1264. But the rest of the construction would be drawn out over centuries because of war and money shortages, and the church was only finished in 1905. But there’s a wealth of historic art inside, mostly in the choir, which has stained glass windows from the 13th century.
Here you can also see the renaissance statue of the “Vierge aux Raisins”, the Virgin with child, clutching a vine with grapes.
11. Factory Outlets
If you fancy a bargain then you’ll be thrilled to find that Troyes is Europe’s Mecca for factory outlet shopping, which is a legacy of the local textile industry.
There are three colossal shopping centres a few kilometres from the city.
Marques Avenue has 240 brands, and the outlets for Adidas and Nike here are so large they look more like supermarkets.
Marques City was the one that started it all, and has sportswear and fashion brands at between 30% and 50% less than retail price.
Then there’s McArthurGlen, with more than a 100 stores selling previous season items at a 30% discount.
Just make sure you have enough space in your luggage!
12. Coeur de Troyes
At the junction of Rue Passerat and Rue Hennequin is a modern symbol for Troyes, a monumental stainless steel sculpture of a heart, made by the couple, Michèle and Thierry Kayo-Houël.
The location is no accident, as this spot is the “heart” of the city, where the Bourg meets the Cité on the canal’s quayside.
This monument needs to be seen at night for its pulsing red lights, which beat faster as you get nearer and your motion is detected by three cameras inside the sculpture.
13. Hôtel des Chapelaines
One of the renaissance treasures to look out for is this beautiful stone mansion on Rue Turenne, which has a balustrade below the roof pediments and pilasters framing each window.
The mansion was built in the decade after the great fire in 1524, for Nicolas Largentier who belonged to a rich family of drapers.
Later Largentiers became nobility when they acquired the Château de Chapelaine in Vassimont, and took the Chapelaine name that came with it.
Among the royalty to have stayed at this handsome mansion, are Louis XIII in 1629 and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II in 1814.
14. Champagne Route
Although all of the champagne houses are headquartered further north in Reims and Épernay , the vignoble does extend as far south as Troyes.
In fact about a fifth of vineyards producing champagne are in the Aube department, making it the second-largest producer of this prized beverage.
Inside 30 minutes you’ll be in the Côte des Bar region, and on a Champagne route that runs for more than 200 kilometres, through lovely stone villages on chalk hillsides striped with pinot vines.
A lot of what the family-run producers make in this southern part of Champagne is sold onto the big names in the north.
Call in at the award-winning Champagne Rémy Massin et Fils for an enthusiastic tour.
Andouillette de Troyes is a sausage that is taken very seriously: Charcuteries and butchers have to adhere to tough guidelines to gain the envied 5A label to make this delicacy and can spend years trying to achieve this recognition.
You can see what all the fuss is about at most traditional restaurants.
The sausage is made only with pork chitterlings and stomach, and normally comes with green beans and either fries or mashed potatoes.
Order a glass of soft champagne or Aube cider to go with it.
Chaorce meanwhile is the regional cheese, and it’s a national household name, made with cow’s milk and with a soft texture.